You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to surmise that war has a perverse appeal for the human race, nor is the attraction limited to religious fanatics committing mass murder and suicide for the greater glory of God. Among the so-called civilized it takes many insidious and sublimated forms. In the week after September 11, one of the more disturbing themes to surface in the press was the suggestion that as devastating as this attack has been, something good may come of it: an improvement in the American character or, at any rate, a salutary blow to our purported complacency and self-indulgence.
An editorial in the New York Times opined, “There has been a sense that whatever comes next must naturally be diminished. That need not be true…. Americans desperately want to commit to something greater than themselves. That was the secret of what we admired in the World War II era, and it is what this new war against terrorism will require as well. The awful week of death and destruction that has just ended might be the invitation to create a great new generation and a finer United States.” The Financial Times gave us Francis “End of History” Fukuyama: “As with individuals, adversity can have many positive effects. Enduring national character is shaped by shared trauma…. Peace and prosperity, by contrast, encourage preoccupation with one’s own petty affairs.” Americans have been allowed to “wallow in such self-indulgent behaviour as political scandal or identity politics.” (Of course, a terrorist attack by Islamic militants is identity politics carried to its logical extreme, but never mind.)
And then there was New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich, who concluded that any event with the power to force shark attacks off People‘s cover can’t be all bad: “Not all of what’s gone may be a cause for mourning…. This week’s nightmare, it’s now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decadelong dream…that we could have it all without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated into an experience of virtual terror akin to a theme park ride.” Gary Condit, Lizzie Grubman, overblown fears of school shootings, Elián González, the California blackout that wasn’t, Survivor, a Hollywood-sanitized Pearl Harbor–all are breathlessly invoked as horrible examples of ersatz catastrophe now swept away by the real cleansing thing. President Bush, Rich declares, must prepare us for sacrifice, “something many living Americans, him included, have never had to muster”–as though that gap in experience were self-evidently to be deplored.
Have we come to this? Purification of our national soul through war? It has a ring to it, all right; an unnervingly familiar ring at that. The authors of these commentaries cannot be accused of war fever, exactly. They are not, after all, among the ranters venting their anger by demanding that we wipe most of the Middle East off the map.They merely hope to use a lemon to make lemonade, as it were. But if that hope resonates with enough people–if Americans are seduced into going for the secret erotic payoff of sacrifice, discipline and submergence in the collective will–the effect will be more repressive than a crude crackdown on civil liberties could ever be.
To begin with, the premise that this country (“That fat, daydreaming America,” in Rich’s words) has been corrupted by prosperity is a lie. The “prosperity” of the past decade has mainly consisted of the dramatic concentration of wealth among 20 percent of the population. Most people have continued to struggle economically; their daydreams, if any, were about the riches they were told they were supposed to have, but that had somehow eluded them. In any case the boom was already over, without any help from terrorists.